Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus: How the Jewishness of Jesus Can Transform Your FaithSitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus: How the Jewishness of Jesus Can Transform Your Faith
Ann Spangler, Lois Tverberg
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Gain a deeper understanding of Jesus by seeing his world through the eyes of first-century Jews! Journey back to ancient Palestine and explore the culture, customs, feasts, and prayers that shaped Christ and his disciples. You'll discover how to enrich your own faith by gaining insight into the Jewishness of Jesus. Includes suggestions for reflection, prayer, and meditation at the end of each chapter. 224 pages, hardcover from Zondervan.
     

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Christianbook.com: Where did the idea for Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus come from? Was there a particular event or piece of information that piqued your interest?

Lois Tverberg:
About 15 years ago I signed up for a seminar on ancient Israel and the Jewish culture of the Bible at my church, thinking it would be just some dry background information. But all of a sudden Bible stories that were foggy and confusing became clear and deeply relevant to my life. I started hearing the words of Scripture through the ears of its ancient listeners, and it made all the difference in the world.

As a college biology professor, my background in research compelled me to dig deeper. Over the years I’ve traveled to Israel several times to experience the land and history in person and to study the language and the culture. Every time I come home I’m newly inspired, because in just the past few decades scholars and archaeologists have unearthed enormous amounts of information that clarifies the Bible’s stories, particularly the Jewish setting of Jesus.

Christianbook.com: How did you and Lois Tverberg conduct your research and writing process? Did you have separate roles, or did you work together?

Ann Spangler:
Lois has been studying the Jewish background of Jesus and the Gospels for many years. I have come to the subject more recently and have learned a great deal through our interaction. As Lois has already mentioned, she made several study trips to Israel. My first trip was about 15 years ago. Then, two summers ago, in preparation for working on Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, I spent two weeks in Israel taking a course on Second Temple Judaism. My time there was fascinating, and I learned a lot about recent discoveries that shed light on early first century Israel. Being there also gave me a renewed sense of the land and its people.  Though much has changed over the course of many centuries, it’s not that difficult to imagine Jesus in that setting and to picture what his life would have been like.

When Lois and I wrote the book, our skills worked in a complementary fashion. Lois is a consummate researcher, scholar, and teacher while my gifts are more in the area of storytelling and bringing out the application for lay people. Lois would write the rough draft which I would then rewrite. She would respond to my work, and we would go back and forth, back and forth until we both felt that we were satisfied. Whenever I posed questions or challenges regarding a particular statement or point of view, Lois’ answers would surprise and delight me, revealing a wealth of background knowledge and a depth of wisdom that I hope shines through in the book.

Christianbook.com: Why is it important for present-day Christians to learn about Jewish culture and tradition?

Ann Spangler:
We are so fortunate to have the Bible as guide and foundation for our Christian faith. Two thousand years after Jesus was born, we can read the Gospels and understand his message. Even so, two millennia have passed since he and his disciples walked on the earth. Most of us, especially in the western world, are living in a culture far removed from the one Jesus lived in.

Once you begin to understand, for instance, that Jesus was an observant Jew, and that he was engaged in the rabbinic conversations of the day, you begin to comprehend his message in far great depth. You realize that other rabbis also told parables. You understand what it means to become a disciple. Even learning about meal customs can revolutionize your understanding of some of the meals Jesus participated in and presided over.

Lois and I like to say that reading the Gospels without knowing much about the Jewish background of Jesus, is a little like watching black and white TV. You get the gist of what’s happening even though the picture may be a bit scratchy. Once you begin to understand the Jewish context of the Gospels, on the other hand, it’s as though you have just swapped out that old black and white TV for the latest model high definition set, complete with surround sound. Everything comes to life in so much greater depth, with vivid colors and textures.

Parables come to life in new ways. You also begin to understand how the biblical feasts were more than just harvest feasts. God was using them to telegraph a message to his people about the past, the present, and the future, messages about the One who would eventually fulfill them. Passages that used to confound and confuse suddenly make sense.  There can be lots of “aha” moments as you learn about the Jewish background of Christianity.

Christianbook.com: Why do you think that so many Christians are unaware of their Jewish heritage?

Lois Tverberg:
All of the disciples were Jewish, and the New Testament was written almost entirely by Jews. But within only a couple centuries Gentiles became the majority in the church, and many were hostile to its Jewish origins. Even in Romans Paul warned the Gentiles not to be arrogant toward the Jews, but his words went unheeded. One reason was that early Christians needed to establish their identity as a new movement, and they defended their faith by focusing on their differences with Judaism.

Through the ages there has been occasional interest by Christians in understanding their Jewish roots, but for much of its history the church has struggled with anti-Semitism. And Jews who had felt the persecution of Christians were understandably less than interested in helping them understand the roots of their faith.

It’s only been in the last century that Christians have become avidly interested in the topic. One reason for this is because we mingle so much more. Jews and Christians now have relative freedom to discuss their beliefs, and both groups are curious about how the other reads their common Scriptures.

Don’t forget that in centuries past, people traveled very little and were largely unaware of differences in culture and history. So from the Middle ages we find paintings of King David dressed in knight’s armor — people simply didn’t imagine that his setting was different than their own. But now people see different ethnicities all around them and realize how much our world has changed in just a few decades. We are curious to know what Bible’s stories meant in their original context.

Christianbook.com: How has your relationship with God changed since you started researching and writing this book?

Lois Tverberg:
One thing that happened was that I gained a much greater confidence that the events in Scripture are undeniable historical reality. My own feet have stood in the Pool of Siloam where Jesus healed the blind man, and I’ve waded in the Sea of Galilee where Jesus taught from the boat. As I read my Bible, I can close my eyes and imagine myself right there. It’s much easier to share my faith with others when I know how real it is.

Also, I’ve gained a sense of awe for how God set in motion a plan thousands of years earlier for the coming of his Son, and how he wove images of Jesus’ atoning death and resurrection into the ancient traditions of Israel, like Passover and Yom Kippur. Even today Jews celebrate the feasts that God instituted thousands of years ago in the book of Leviticus, and each one of them contains hints of Christ as their ultimate fulfillment. I see God’s hand working throughout the Scriptures, and it gives me confidence that he is in control today.

Christianbook.com: What can we learn about Jesus based on how and where He ate his meals?

Ann Spangler:
Unlike modern America, where we often eat on the run wherever and whenever we need to, the biblical world took a much different approach to meal time. For one thing, you didn’t sit down to dinner with just anyone. Sharing a meal meant that you were connected in an important way to those with whom you ate. It signified that you enjoyed a relationship of peace. Also when you were a host, you were obligated to defend your guests, even to the point of death.

When you picture Jesus sitting down with tax collectors and sinners, you begin to see why other Jews were so scandalized. How could a good person, a holy person, make peace with such people? Most of the Pharisees, for instance, would only eat with those who observed their rigorous rules and customs.

To be a disciple of Jesus meant not only that you got invited to a lot of great meals but that you walked with Jesus straight into scandal by dining with undesirables. But isn’t that exactly who Jesus came to make peace with? At the most basic level, we are all undesirables, invited to the table of the Lord.

Once we understand how covenant meals operated in that culture, we can begin to appreciate the incredible significance of the last meal Jesus shared with his disciples, the night before he was crucified. And we can understand, too, what it means when we take part in communion in our various churches.

Christianbook.com: How does what we know about being a disciple of Jesus in the 1st century affect the way we follow Him today?

Lois Tverberg:
A disciple wasn’t just someone who casually studied a rabbi’s teachings, but someone who left home and family to live at his teacher’s side for years at a time. The relationship between a rabbi and a disciple ran very deep, like a father and a son, and great loyalty and love was expected. A disciple’s goal was to observe by his every action how his rabbi lived according to God’s Word, and then to become like him as a person.

We often see our task to “make disciples of all nations” as being about spreading information, when it actually is about transformation.  The gospel is not just about getting others to believe the right things. It is a call for us to walk with Christ intimately as his disciples, to know and follow his words closely, and then share by our own example his reality in our lives.

Christianbook.com: In conclusion, is there anything else you’d like to say to readers of Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus?

Ann Spangler:
When Lois and I first began working on the book, I was struck by something she said. She told me that according to Jewish teaching, the highest form of worship is study. That’s right, study. This rang true to me because it mirrors my own experience. Though I have occasionally had wonderful experiences of God in prayer, often the richest experiences have come as I have been conducting research for a book, delving into the scriptures, doing my best to understand and apply the God’s Word to my life.  And of course while I am studying I am praying that God will give me insight.
 
So if anyone is daunted by the idea of studying the Bible, I think they will be hugely encouraged if they begin to spend just a little time on a regular basis studying the context from which it emerged. One good way to start is by learning about the Jewish roots of our Christian faith. Because of the cross pollination of Jewish and Christian scholarship that has occurred in recent years and because of the archaeological discoveries of the last 60 years, we have an unparalleled opportunity. We are able to peer back into the early first century in order to better understand the life that Jesus was living and the context in which he was preaching, teaching, and ministering.

Though it’s wonderful to travel to Israel, not everyone has the time or resources to do so. But the good news is that you don’t have to travel to the other side of the world in order to understand the Jewish world of Jesus. So much is available right now that sheds enormous light on the early first century and that adds a depth of richness to our own Christian faith.